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Guiding Growth: The Time-Tested Role of Mentoring and Coaching in Teacher Success

Designing Educator Learning Experiences in NTC’s Anchors for Equity

Amy Feehan
Director of Program & Partnerships,
New Teacher Center

For National Mentoring Month, we sat down with New Teacher Center Director of Program and Partnerships Amy Feehan to explore the pivotal role of mentoring and coaching in fostering teacher satisfaction and success. NTC works with districts nationwide to cultivate strong coaching cultures that invest in high-trust, high-impact facilitation that supports teacher retention, growth, and trust. In turn, NTC-supported districts often save money — up to $1M in some cases — for reinvestment where its needed most. Leveraging a national portfolio and bringing a wide range of knowledge and expertise to each partnership, NTC looks to bring hundreds of thousands of mentoring practitioner hours to advance the experiences of teachers and students.

Why is mentoring and coaching crucial to teacher success?

When you have a mentor or coach, they’re right there with you — working alongside you, observing your work, and supporting your thinking process. Coaching and mentoring embody the art of fostering relationships that center around trust and understanding. It involves using the knowledge of a mentee’s identity, strengths, and goals to support meaningful shifts in their practice. It is an integration of Social-Emotional Learning (SEL) with the science of learning and development to create optimal learning environments.

Having a mentor or coach matters at every stage, not solely for beginners like new teachers. Anyone in any profession can benefit from refining their methods, guided by someone with knowledge, expertise, experience, and the ability to communicate it all effectively. Such personalized feedback surpasses what professional development sessions, videos, or university experiences can offer. It’s about having someone who can analyze your practice, offer constructive feedback, and help shape an educator’s thinking, leading eventually to self-assessment and improvement.

What is the main difference between a coach and a mentor? And why is it important?

At NTC, we champion instructional coaching, focused on guiding new teachers in instructional practices, fostering positive student outcomes, and nurturing optimal learning environments. When considering mentors beyond the education space, I envision individuals who play a role in my life without directly observing my professional efforts. They serve as sounding boards for ideas and discussions about my work. To me, a mentor offers a space for dialogue about my professional life. In contrast, a coach actively observes my work, providing specific feedback on my practice. At NTC, we’ve integrated these approaches to professional learning development, combining the strengths of both mentorship and coaching, a fusion that I find immensely powerful.

What are the specific hats a mentor or coach must wear?

As a mentor for new teachers, your role is multidimensional. A mentor acts as a bridge between the teacher and the school environment. You serve as a guide, acquainting them with the school’s culture, norms, and operational procedures. This involves things such as calling for substitutes, organizing materials, and establishing communication protocols with families, essentially navigating the logistical intricacies of the institution.

Additionally, you exemplify what it means to be a teacher role model. Beyond subject matter expertise, you model effective strategies for fostering relationships with students and families, navigating the school’s political landscape, and demonstrating effective teaching practices consistently throughout your interactions.

Being an instructional expert is also crucial. When offering feedback, it’s necessary to assess your mentee’s current practices, drawing from your own expertise without imposing your classroom style. It’s about empowering new teachers to develop their best practices, leveraging your insights, research, curriculum knowledge, and instructional strategies.

Part of your role is that of a feedback provider, often delivering challenging assessments to foster growth. Identifying strengths and areas needing improvement helps guide your teacher’s development, essentially coaching them through constructive criticism and guidance.

Lastly, mentors are advocates. Mentorship involves advocating for the needs of new teachers, whether it’s additional resources, learning opportunities, or time allocation. Additionally, you advocate to the school or district administration on their behalf, ensuring that their needs are recognized and addressed effectively.

Coaching and mentoring embody the art of fostering relationships that center around trust and understanding.

How can districts facilitate the development of quality mentors and coaches?

The best mentors often emerge from those who have experienced effective mentoring themselves. When educators receive impactful mentorship, contributing to the acceleration of their effectiveness and the impact of having an instructional expert in their corner, they tend to aspire to pay it forward and pull on their rich experiences. This creates a reserve of individuals within schools and districts who’ve benefited from such support, ready to step into mentoring roles, thereby perpetuating a growth cycle.

Identifying potential mentors requires investment. It’s not about finding someone perfectly equipped from day one; rather, it’s about spotting individuals who possess some of the essential skills and characteristics, and a willingness to learn the rest along the way. Mentors need training in the science of adult education and professional learning support. There is a vast world of pedagogy that supports adult learners that should be pulled from when both upskilling mentors and attending to mentee development.

Another necessary aspect of recruiting mentors is aligning their demographics with those of the new teachers. When possible, seeking mentors who match incoming teachers’ identities or cultural backgrounds is incredibly beneficial. Recognizing that cultural nuances and personal connections play a significant role in mentorship success, aiming for identity matches can foster a deeper understanding and connection between mentor and mentee. In cases where perfect matches aren’t possible, providing equity training and discussions on cultural competency for all mentors is key to reducing the presence of negative bias. This ensures they are equipped to work across lines of difference.

What are some challenges for districts wanting to implement coaching/mentoring models in their schools?

One significant hurdle districts face is the constraint of time. We often tap into our highly talented teachers to become mentors, but we aim to retain their excellence in the classroom while adding new responsibilities. Balancing these roles within the limited hours of a day can be challenging, and working to carve out more time to support them effectively is a foundational strategy.

Another key challenge lies in mentor preparedness. While we strive to have top-notch educators serve as mentors, being a great teacher doesn’t automatically translate to effectively guiding someone else’s practice. Communicating feedback in a way that’s understandable, receptive, and actionable for the mentee is a skill that even excellent teachers might not initially possess. This gap in mentor preparedness is a common concern echoed by our partners experienced in mentoring or coaching.

What do districts need to know to be set up for successful coaching/mentoring in their schools?

For districts aiming to establish effective mentoring programs, it’s important to ensure mentors or coaches possess the skills to build strong relationships, identify actionable feedback, and cultivate a new teacher’s ability to eventually self-direct this growth. This is a careful fusion of delivering feedback understandably while nurturing the habits of mind necessary for autonomous development.

Another area of opportunity lies in naming mentoring and induction as strategic priorities. Amidst numerous post-COVID challenges, districts often have an array of competing focus areas. However, when these districts neglect to specifically name teacher induction, coaching, or mentoring as part of their plans, they inadvertently withhold essential resources. Teachers are pivotal in realizing these priorities, and investing in their development translates to investing in the achievement of broader school and district goals. The way to invest in teachers is to give them the type of professional learning opportunities that are the most impactful — mentoring and coaching. Given the correlation in the teacher working conditions research between having access to a mentor or coach and higher retention rates, it’s not too much of a stretch to think about mentoring and coaching as a possible recruitment strategy as well.